Vikings at crossroads with offense, schedule

Christian Ponder (Hannah Foslien/Getty)

The Vikings feel they let an opportunity slide with their latest loss and know the performances need to be much sharper in second half of the season.

Based on the consensus outside view of the Minnesota Vikings, a 5-3 record halfway through the season is a real accomplishment.

Given the way they started the year and finished the first half, the Vikings felt they missed out on an opportunity for more.

"This set up perfectly for us to put an exclamation point on these first eight and have some days before Seattle and try to eke out a tough one on the road," linebacker Chad Greenway said after the 36-17 loss to Tampa Bay on Thursday. "Now, it definitely changes your mentality."

With two games apiece against NFC North rivals Chicago (5-1) and Green Bay (4-3) and a trip to Houston (6-1), the last eight games are going to be quite a challenge even if the Vikings can fix some of the flaws exposed by the Buccaneers. They have three extra days to rest before traveling to Seattle (4-3), always a tough place to play.

"Obviously we're frustrated that our record could be better than 5-3. That's a frustrating thing, but looking back you've got to be proud of it," quarterback Christian Ponder said.

There wasn't much at all to take pride in on Thursday.

"The bottom line is they did a good job of pretty much beating our brains in," defensive end Brian Robison said.

In the process, the Vikings lost starting cornerback Chris Cook to a broken right arm, meaning one of their most important defensive players will be absent for perhaps the remainder of the year. The biggest concern on that side of the ball of late has been the inability to finish tackles and keep opposing running backs in check. Tampa Bay's Doug Martin was the latest to find room, tallying 214 total yards.

The player under the most scrutiny, naturally, is Ponder, who has been out of sync a lot the last month and turning the ball over far too much. He didn't turn the ball over Thursday until a meaningless pass on the last drive with the outcome already decided, but he hasn't been poised lately under pressure or able to stretch the field with downfield throws.

"It's going to be hard for us to achieve our goals if we're not able to improve our passing game," coach Leslie Frazier said.

Whether it's a matter of accuracy for Ponder, protection by the offensive line, separation by the receivers or game planning by the coaching staff, the Vikings have been too easy to stop over the last month, even with Adrian Peterson's continued prowess.

Frazier reiterated Ponder's hold on the starting job, barring injury, and insisted he hasn't seen a loss of confidence in him.

"No, I think he's begun to understand the nature of the business and the nature of the quarterback position," Frazier said, adding: "You have to be mentally tough, and we think he is and he's shown that he is. I think he can handle some of the things that are dished out, but he's going to have big days for us. We know that, he's done that, and he'll lead our team to success."

Peterson, whose impact on the offense was in question before the season because of the typical recovery timeline for an anterior cruciate ligament tear, has sure put those concerns to rest. He's on pace for more than 1,500 yards rushing, and he declared in the locker room on Friday he's "over 100 percent" and "trying to get to 200 percent."

But even Peterson showed he's not infallible, losing his first fumble of the year during a spin move in the second quarter that set the Buccaneers up for a touchdown. That's the kind of mistake that the Vikings can't overcome if they don't develop the passing game, a consistency that creates the balance that's been lacking this month.

"We have a great potential offensively. The confidence is there," Peterson said. "We have to start fast. We haven't been able to do that."

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